Big Happy Crowd - Folk and Feedback

Folk and Feedback

Big Happy Crowd

(Zesty Records 0703)

Zesty Records
POB 541061
Orlando, FL 32854
(407) 647-1709
zesty@pobox.com

A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
by David Schultz
(schultz@alum.mit.edu)

"Somebody lied. We've been sold a bill of goods that says if you write songs with an acoustic guitar, you can only be a depressed folkie. Fun? No, no, no. You must be polite and inoffensive and all your music must sound the same. You can't take chances with instruments or styles on your record (guitar & voice or slick Nashville studio band only, please). And your CD cover must feature a sensitive-looking photo of yourself clutching an expensive guitar. We're not buying it."

This statement comes from the liner notes on the back of Big Happy Crowd's debut CD, Folk and Feedback. As this quotation and the name of the CD suggest, Big Happy Crowd (Rich Grula on guitars and vocals, Claudia Chopek on violin, Dave Stengel on percussion, and Ray Nissen on bass and keyboards) is not your typical folk band. They blend musical styles between acoustic folk (Options), old-timey country (Pennsylvania Lament), thrashy jazz ( Don't Sleep With the Singer ), to Russian folk with a Mexican-surf bridge ("Broken"). Categorization of Big Happy Crowd is simply not possible, nor should it be allowed.

All but one of the 14 tracks were cowritten by Grula, who uses the moniker Big Happy Crowd whether he's playing solo or with the rest of the band. It may take a while to get used to Grula's voice, being neither distinctive nor particularly powerful, but the strong songwriting, catchy melodies, and diverse instrumentation are what dintinguishes this album. In particular, Chopek's violin playing is top-notch and adds a great texture to all the songs she plays on.

I find Gone and Crawling Back to You two of the album's many highlights. Sometimes I think I'm listening to Georgia Satellites, the kind of raw country-rock energy that makes you want to get up and dance. If you like humorous songs about sex, then Folk and Feedback has its share as well. "Why Aren't We Having Sex?" is about a relationship gone stale: the man claiming that they haven't had sex in five months, the woman claiming it's all in his head. Don't Sleep With the Singer is "a public service announcement for musicians" because sleeping with the singer kills the song.

The diversity of styles continues with the 1940s-era croonings of Your Sister, complete with backing female doowop vocals. He Fired the Band is a kind of rock anthem to anyone who's ever tried to lead a band and been accused of being difficult to work with. The instrumentation has tinges of the rock band Slade.

Insight into the creative process of instrumenting the songs that Grula has in his head can be found described in the liner notes. An illustration of how different instrumentations of the same song lead to different interpretations is illustrated by Pennsylvania Lament. This song appears twice on the CD, once as a pumped up rock version (the unmarked track 15), and again as a slower Woody-Guthrie-style folk song (track 4).

Folk and Feedback is an exceptional example of the way contemporary folk music has broadened by including more electic mixes of styles, while still maintaining the strong songwriting. It probably rocks a little harder than the typical folk album, but lessons learned from other folk-rock bands (e.g., the Nields) indicate that this, in itself, is not a bad thing.

Edited by David Pyles (dnpyles@acousticmusic.com)

Copyright 1998, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.

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